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HONOLULU — The big debate raging in Washington these days is over which country poses the greater threat: North Korea or Iraq (with some throwing Iran into the mix, just to keep the old “axis of evil” intact).

The answer is simple: North Korea poses the greater potential and actual threat today. It possesses chemical and biological weapons, and a worst-case analysis credits Pyongyang with up to two nuclear devices as well. Even without these weapons of mass destruction, or WMDs, North Korea still poses the greatest threat because of its ability to inflict great damage on Seoul. The South Korean capital is within range of thousands of North Korean conventional missiles, rockets and long-range artillery pieces.

But this does not mean Washington should stop putting pressure on Iraq and start waving a reinforced big stick in North Korea’s direction. Nor should the lack of saber-rattling by Washington lead one to the conclusion that the North Korean “crisis” (even if not identified as such) is being ignored.

Constant accusations to the contrary, Washington appears to be actively pursuing a diplomatic approach toward both Iraq and North Korea. U.S. President George W. Bush is looking for the United Nations Security Council to take an active role in both instances, while many of its members seem to be hoping that Washington will revert to form and do things unilaterally so they won’t have to make politically uncomfortable decisions.

Few would argue with Bush’s assertion that the use of force in Iraq is the last and least desirable option. But it is hard to imagine that, absent the threat of American force, there would be intrusive inspections going on in Iraq today. What the French (among others) can’t seem to understand is that the best way to avoid the use of force is to demonstrate a willingness to use it. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein specializes in brinkmanship. Until he believes he is at the brink, he is unlikely to fully cooperate. The more he withholds full cooperation, the more likely war becomes.

Unless you believe that the use of force is a far greater evil than allowing Hussein to develop WMDs (not to mention flaunting numerous U.N. resolutions), the time has come to announce, convincingly, that the brink has been reached. If the U.S. (and its “coalition of the willing”) go to war without the U.N., the first sure casualty will be the multilateral process that many Security Council members profess to endorse.

While Bush’s watch may be running a bit faster than many of us are comfortable with, it is clear that time is running out. The time for Hussein to cooperate is overdue. Waiting until Iraq can pose as great a threat to its neighbors as North Korea does now only makes matters worse.

Meanwhile, not to be ignored, North Korea has also thrown down a gauntlet toward the Security Council. After being branded in material breach of International Atomic Energy Agency Safeguards, it is now threatening to withdraw from the 1953 armistice that ended the Korean War — a conflict that pitted North Korea and Chinese “volunteers” against the U.N., under whose flag the war was fought and in whose name the Armistice is currently being maintained.

Threatening the use of force against North Korea does not yet seem appropriate, although Washington is wise to keep all options on the table. But while shouting back at North Korea achieves little, neither does sitting quietly by as Pyongyang threatens “World War III” if the Security Council does its job. One reason North Korean rhetoric keeps escalating is because the international community has failed to take Pyongyang to task for the completely irresponsible, inflammatory remarks it has made thus far. Instead of ignoring its threats (which makes Pyongyang feel compelled to act even more outrageously), it’s time to say “enough is enough!”

What’s needed is a statement from the Security Council explaining that a withdrawal from the armistice will mean that a state of war once again exists between North Korea and the U.N., not because of any action or desire on the U.N.’s part but because of North Korea’s deliberate action. Should this occur, all U.N. member-states will be instructed to stop providing aid and assistance to North Korea. This includes South Korea, which continues (with China) to keep Pyongyang on life support.

As one of his final acts before turning the leadership reins over to Roh Moo Hyun on Feb. 25, outgoing South Korean President Kim Dae Jung should announce that a North Korean withdrawal from the armistice will leave Seoul with no option other than to temporarily suspend its “sunshine policy” of engagement and to halt all North-South contacts and commerce.

I agree with Kim when he says war on the Korean Peninsula is unlikely, even if Pyongyang walks away from the armistice. But that does not mean we should sit idly by and merely smile and shake our heads as Pyongyang continues to deliberately ratchet up the crisis. Regardless of how full of bluster its threats may be, Pyongyang must understand that it can’t be business as usual if it walks away from the armistice. It would be decidedly easier for Kim to make this point than to leave his successor with the unenviable task of having to respond if the North’s threat to withdraw from the armistice proves not to be an idle one.

It’s also time for China to stop acting like an uninvolved spectator. Instead of merely echoing its mantra about the need for dialogue, Beijing should openly praise Washington’s willingness to enter into negotiations, while reminding Pyongyang that if it walks away from the armistice this time it will have to go it alone. And, if its support for multilateralism in general and the Security Council is real rather than rhetorical, Beijing should also speak up about the need for both Baghdad and Pyongyang to verifiably abandon their WMD programs.

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